I swear to Gawd and All That is Holy that this will be my last word on two specific issues: the public shaming I endured this time one year ago and Hedly Weiss.
Recently, I decided that avoiding The Moth was cutting off my own nose to spite my face. Sure, I was the host for five years and was embarrassingly ejected from that spot because of an online kerfuffle that has left a bitter taste in my mouth. Ultimately, I was my own worst enemy (more on that below).
When I was the host, a regular storyteller decided to stop coming. He told me it was because he never seemed to win and it was discouraging. I told him at the time (and am now hearing my own advice) that he was signing up to tell stories at The Moth for the wrong reasons. If winning was the point, he was missing the larger picture.
Most storytelling nights have an audience comprised mostly of other tellers. The Moth routinely has a sold out house of civilians who are only there to hear stories. If you want to be a storyteller, performing for an actual audience is essential.
So I’ll be writing stories and coming to The Moth and telling them. Not to win, not to save face, but to tell stories to an actual audience.
[SIDE NOTE: I was told Friday that I was to be denied membership to the Facebook page "The Moth in Chicago" not to exclude me but to "prevent further controversy." Ah, well...]
Last week, I wrote a story for the theme Outnumbered and, you guessed it, it was about the online pillorying I took a year ago. Seemed to fit the theme and it was cathartic to write the damn thing. Except I wrote it and re-wrote it and went through 10 drafts before time ran out. I hold to the "Don't be the hero or the victim of your story" school of thought, and this proved difficult in this case.
I forgot to buy a ticket online, it sold out, and I was told I would not be sold a walk up ticket (not to exclude me but to prevent further controversy...?) so I didn’t get in to tell the story. The lesson there is to buy the tickets online. So I will.
Here’s the story:
The hope was that the internet, with it’s capacity for instant communication, would allow us to tap into the inherent greatness that is the human potential. True in some cases but mostly it has become the proliferation of Hatfields and McCoys, two factions hellbent on mutual destruction over nothing more than notches on the ears of a hog.
The text was from a number I did not recognize.
“I hope you fucking die, you racist piece of shit.” it said.
I deleted it. It was completely out of context with a text I normally might receive on a Tuesday morning sitting in my cubicle at public radio.
My iPhone buzzed again. Another number I didn’t know. “We know where you live, motherfucker.”
And another. And another. My personal Gmail box had five or six emails with similar messages, again from people I didn’t know.
What the fuck?
By 10 a.m. that morning I had received 32 emails and 25 texts. By 10:15 a.m., my colleague came in and looked anxious. “Did you see it? It’s awful.”
Two days before I ended a five-year friendship.
She was an up and coming performer who was looking for regular advice as she burst on the scene. She was volatile—frequently, she would get into a fight with another performer or a family member—but I liked her. We laughed a lot. Over those five years, I became what she called a “second father” to her son, the most "woke" white motherfucker around, one of her biggest fans and supporters, and while we would get into hot online debates about politics, we’d always come back and laugh about the reactions people would have about our arguments.
At one point, she got into a fight with another performer who happened to also be good friend. She blasted him on Facebook, calling him a racist, sexist psycho. Things got very heated. It was surprising as the two had been close friends for a long while. They both asked me to mediate so I bought whiskey, beer and some Dimo’s pizza and invited them both over to bury the hatchet. He showed, she didn’t. My advice to him was to lay low and let it pass but do not fight back.
Our friendship began to become strained after that. She would accuse me of siding with people (including him) who she had issue with. Our online fights became less playful. Her politics became more polarizing. Given that for her, Facebook was the ultimate soapbox, I unfollowed her so I could avoid getting into the fruitless online debates. Finally, a year ago, she posted that the show I was the host of was a tool of white supremacy. I couldn’t ignore it. I argued with her and when it became obvious that we could not see eye to eye on it, I sent her an email letting her know that we could no longer be friends. I unfriended and blocked her on Facebook.
“Did you see it? It’s awful.”
“It” was a 20-minute Facebook video she made and posted the following Monday morning that, from what I gather, had her crying and ranting about what a racist, sexist psycho I was, how I had never been her real friend and only had her around as a token, how heartbroken and angry she was that I had lied to her for so long. She included screenshots of emails she had artfully edited as well as my phone number. In 24 hours, her call to arms had created an online mob of 48–60 people, only about 10 who even knew me.
I was a predator. A stalker. A sociopath. She and a few others (including the host of another Live Lit show and a very popular local actor) started a campaign to get me fired from both the show I hosted and my public radio gig. In both the art and NPR worlds, the only thing worse than being accused of being a racist and a sexist is being accused of being a pedophile or voting for Trump.
It was overwhelming. It was like Fatal Attraction without the sex. And, because I am stupid and not dissimilar from a Hatfield or a McCoy, I did not take my own advice and lay low. I fought back. I argued with every post that called for me to be fired from the show, I mocked her, I mocked others in her gang of public shamers.
It was isolating. It was infuriating. I was fired from the show and reprimanded at work because who wants that kind of press? I can’t blame them—I couldn’t get myself to back down and every interaction became a new slight to attack or defend. Instead of taking my own advice and ignoring the taunts and persecution, I fed into it by fighting back using their forum to do it.
Today, I’m pretty much a well-read expert on the subject of public shaming and the call-out culture of the internet. I've spoken with Jon Ronson , the bestselling author of So You've Been Publicly Shamed. I know that the first case of the internet being used in this way was in 2005 when a Korean woman failed to clean up her dog's shit on a train. She was so brutalized online, she killed herself, so I figure I got off extremely lucky.
Perhaps because I experienced it, I now see this sort of mob justice every day, where groups of people gang up on individuals whom they may not even know with the intent of personal destruction. I’ve become for some who suddenly find themselves the victim of it a voice of support.
In school, I recall being taught that when a bully comes after you, defend yourself, stand up and refuse to be bullied. But there are no consequences for trolling someone online, no accountability, no burden to prove accusation. Fighting back only fuels the vitriol, extending the damage. Fighting back spins out of control over nothing more than notches on a hog’s ear. In the high school of social media, I tell them that the best approach is to turn the goddamn machine off and leave the noise behind you.
Not my best work but passable, I think. Accurate, at least. The most important thing I learned from Lydia, Molly and Ian was that the consequences of that tiny slice of controversy all came because I fought back. I lost the hosting gig because I couldn’t be trusted to shut the fuck up about it. I was reprimanded because I refused to back down. In the writing of the story, I had to ask myself why I fought back.
I had to admit the hard truth: I cared what these people and the people they group themselves with thought of me. I really hate admitting that. Even in the melee, I kept insisting that I didn't care but the truth is I did. Admitting that is more embarrassing than the time I crapped my pants in a Wichita, Kansas mall.
In the accountability-free zone that is the Internet, caring about what others think of you online is the ultimate weakness. It is the source of angst that entices kids, bullied online relentlessly, to kill themselves or get guns and shoot up a school. It is the Kryptonite for anyone online that saps the strength and pulls you into the fray.
It is the one thing those who decide to mob up and bully individuals are counting upon.
Which brings me to Hedly.
Unlike the shiny brand new activists who say they have endured her crap reviews for decades, I actually have. I’ve been ignoring her critiques for 25 years—20 of them as a theatrical producer. Without any headlines, I stopped inviting her and the Chicago Sun-Times to review shows in 1994. Has she written racially insensitive, borderline bigoted shit in her reviews? Yup—in perhaps 2 percent of her 30 years of writing them. Hedly’s greatest sin is that she’s a bad critic.
But Hedly got it right on one thing, though.
She’s been called a racist, sexist hack by thousands of people online. She’s been called into question in national publications. Chicago is making this a spectacle all over the country and she has refused to comment even once.
In that regard, she has won. Which is both discouraging that she genuinely doesn’t care what the artists she critiques think of her personally, and encouraging as a lesson for those who will be publicly shamed in the future. If you think you aren’t one of those future victims of the Internet mob vigilantes, you’re like my wife who has almost zero social media presence.
If you have a social media presence, you are vulnerable to these sorts of Villagers with Torches moments. Remember that they only win if you care what they think of you.